The Contours Of Communitas: Both State, Trait & Stage
I first stumbled across the word communitas in an effort to make myself sound important. I'd just put the final touches on my book A Collective Blooming but I didn't feel so great about printing 'Published By Me & Proof Read By My Dad' on the inside cover. So instead I sat down to think of an impressive sounding name for my own faux publishing company and immediately the word communitas sprung to mind. And while I had no idea what it meant, I loved it straight away. It sounded vaguely like community and gave the impression of a word that was on a perpetual victory lap after having achieved glorious victory in the Colosseum. And so my humble publishing house was born. Little did I know that the word would soon become one of my guiding stars along the journey towards a world more curious and kind.
But what exactly does communitas mean? Well, it depends who you ask. Historically the word has been defined as 'community; a body of people acting collectively and also as 'a sense of duty and willingness to serve one's community.' But more recently in the field of anthropology it's been used specifically to refer to 'the sense of solidarity and bonding that develops among people experiencing a ritual, rite of passage, or other transitional state together.' However I've come to use the word in a slightly different way and this article is an attempt to offer up that interpretation. But first I'd like to acknowledge Victor and Edith Turner, Peter Limberg and Miriam Mason Martineau whose various understandings and explanations of the term have inspired and informed my own.
Communitas As State, Trait & Stage
I've come to view communitas as a state that anyone can drop in and out of in relation to other people either spontaneously or as a result of conscious effort. This can be in both a one to one or group context. I've also come to observe that the ability to more readily drop into such a state can be cultivated over time which indicates that communitas cultivation is also a trait. And finally I've identified three different stages or contexts in which the likelihood of communitas arising tends to increase.
But first let's start with an exploration of the prerequisites and qualities for the state of Communitas to arise a one to one context.
The Communtias Ingredient List
A certain degree of embodiment, individuation and self awareness in both people.
Each person inspires the other somehow.
There is some sense of having been able to see eye to eye and a potential for being peers even though one person may be more developed in many ways than the other.
There is a sense of being part of something bigger together.
There is a a sense of understanding, empathy and compassion for each others perspective and peculiar brand of suffering. This leads to both people feeling deeply understood.
There is a shared sense of trust or the likely potential for it.
There is a sense of being connected that is different from traditional models of friendship. It has more dimensions to it somehow.
There is often a sense of co-regulation of autonomic nervous systems. A feeling of being safe and at ease.
There is a sense of having unified into something more than just the sum of two people and yet neither person lost their sense of self in the experience.
There is a shared sense of authenticity and vulnerability.
To summarise the state of communitas is a mixture of feeling seen, understood, part of something bigger, inspired, safe, vulnerable yet held, unified and yet wholly distinct.
The Communitas Equation
Another way I've come to think of the state of communitas is by way of this equation:
Camaraderie + Companionship + Comradeship = Communitas.
Camaraderie - Mutual trust and friendship among people who spend a lot of time together.
Companionship - A feeling of fellowship and friendly association with people who share one's interests.
Comradeship - The company and friendship of others with common aims.
Communitas - A profound sense of mutual trust, friendship and fellowship between people who have spent a lot of time together, share similar interests and who share common aims.
The Stages Of Communitas
I've also come to observe that communitas can arise in any moment between any combination of people in either a one to one context or a group setting. However as you progress through each of the following stages in the model below there tends to be an increased probability of it arising. And when it does arise in the later stages the stability and potency of the state tends to increase as well.
Stumbling Into Communitas When First Meeting Someone Or In A Cohesive Crowd.
Low to Medium Probability - Low Stability - Low to High Potency
This is the stage when you've either just met someone or you're in group or crowd of people (ie. a workshop, sporting event or concert). During these kinds of interactions there is a low to medium probability that you will experience a state of communitas. But if it does occur it is likely to be somewhat unstable in that it may not last very long and the potency of the state is likely to be at the lower end of the spectrum as there hasn't been much of an opportunity for the people encountering each other to build up a sense of trust.
Cultivating Communitas Through Friendship Or In Community.
Medium Probability - Medium to High Stability - Low to High Potency
In the one to one context this is the stage where you have established either a sense of camaraderie, companionship or comradeship (or even a combination of two of these qualities) with a particular friend. In the group context this is when a friendship group or community has formed over time. During these kinds of interactions there tends to be a medium probability that you will experience a sense of communitas and if it does occur it is likely to have a medium to high level of stability depending on the nature of the bond(s) involved. The potency may be at any level but in my experience is more likely to be around the middle part of the spectrum as while a degree of trust has been established there are levels of understanding, vulnerability, trust and commitment which are unlikely to have been reached yet.
Deepening & Stabilising Communitas Through Kinship Or In A Collective.
High Probability - High Stability - High Potency
In the one to one context this is the stage of having established a deep sense of kinship with someone through having engaged in the practices of Microsolidarity together. In the group context this is when either a very close knit community, Collective or Neotribe has formed over time and been through rites of passage together. During these kinds of interactions there is a high probability that you will experience a state communitas and if it occurs it is likely (but not guaranteed) to have a high level of stability. The potency is also likely to be at the high end of the spectrum as these kinds of experiences often allow for peak levels of human connection.
Why Is Communitas So Important?
I've come to view communitas as an an opportunity to gracefully bridge the personal and the political, an invitation to step beyond the limits of individualism into a new story of partnership and mutual aid. I see it as a kind of gateway into a time of togetherness. A distinct form of love that nods toward the pressing necessity for us to take the pragmatic step of creating whole new worlds with those we relate most closely with. Like an open hand beckoning us forward into a time between worlds where we can become more than the sum total of a collection of individuals and rediscover the threads of belonging that have always connected us together. However like all forms of trust I'm learning that we would do well to treat communitas gently as while it can take a long time to cultivate it can be lost in just a matter of moments.
How Can We Practice Cultivating It?
The shorter answer is I'm still figuring this out. The longer answer will be the topic of my next book. Meanwhile, I've observed that we can increase our ability to cultivate communitas by:
Learning to first recognise and then further integrate our blindspots and shadows (Pods are great place to practice this).
Becoming more familiar with the subtle art of opening to deeper and deeper levels of empathy. I've found David Sauvage's work to be helpful in this regard.
Becoming more adept and fluid at both letting down our emotional armour and also putting up more effective boundaries depending upon which moment and context we find ourselves in.
Wishing you a profound and transformational journey into the heart of communitas, I hope to meet you there at some point and bask together in the more tender aspects of our complex, manifold and often delightfully conflicted selves.
Joe Lightfoot is a writer, podcaster and apprentice community weaver. He is the author of A Collective Blooming: The Rise Of The Mutual Aid Community and the host of The Lightfoot Podcast. You can sign up to his newsletter The Lightfoot Letter and find him on Facebook & Twitter. He is also the Majordomo of the Meta Village On Clubhouse.